Dairo Antonio Usuga David, also known as ‘Otoniel’, was the leader of the Gulf Clan, one of Colombia’s largest paramilitary groups.
A former Colombian drug trafficker admitted to overseeing a vast network of criminal operations and cocaine smuggling, including a violent paramilitary group known as the Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan cartel.
Dairo Antonio Usuga David, better known as Otoniel, pleaded guilty Wednesday to drug distribution and running a continuing criminal enterprise in United States federal court in Brooklyn, New York.
“Tons of cocaine were moved with my permission or on my instructions,” he told the court.
“There was a lot of violence with guerrillas and criminal gangs,” he added, admitting that “murders were committed in military affairs.”
Once one of the world’s most wanted drug traffickers, Otoniel was arrested by Colombian authorities in October 2021 after years of evading arrest. He was extradited to the USA in May 2022.
The Gulf Clan brought violence and exploitation to areas of northern Colombia, using brute force to control major cocaine smuggling routes.
Prosecutors accused Otoniel of smuggling “outrageous” amounts of cocaine into the US, and he faces a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. As part of an extradition deal with Colombia, US prosecutors agreed not to seek a life sentence in his case. The date of sentencing has not yet been set.
The Gulf Clan, also known as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces, has recruited thousands of recruits to clash with Colombian authorities, paramilitary groups and rival gangs.
Otoniel admitted that the group administered a “tax” on cocaine produced, stored or transported through its territory by other groups. Prosecutors claim he ordered the killing and torture of alleged enemies.
“With today’s guilty plea, the bloody reign of Colombia’s most violent and influential drug trafficker since Pablo Escobar is over,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement.
Usuga’s defense lawyer, Paul Nalven, said his client was “very remorseful” for his role in the “cycle of violence”. Nalven said Usuga only received a fourth-grade education and was drawn into a “guerrilla” war in Colombia when he was 16.
For years, the drug trade has contributed to a legacy of violence that has touched the lives of millions of Colombians, and authorities have used tough measures to prosecute criminal organizations such as the Gulf Clan.
However, the militarized approach has had mixed results and has helped fuel accusations of human rights abuses by the government.
In a report released in June detailing the country’s nearly six decades of civil conflict, Colombia’s Truth Commission said the government’s drug policy had prolonged the fighting. More than 450,000 people have been killed in the conflict between government forces, paramilitary organizations, cartels and leftist rebel groups.
Under a policy called Plan Colombia, launched in 2000, the US poured money and military aid into the country to fight leftist rebels and drug cartels.
The Colombian government’s strategy changed in the mid-2010s, and in 2016 officials signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest rebel group at the time.
Nevertheless, the illegal cocaine trade is still present in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug. In 2022, the United Nations said that last year’s crop of coca, the raw material for cocaine, covered 204,000 hectares (500,000 acres) — the largest area recorded in decades.
The Truth Commission report recommended sweeping changes to Colombia’s drug policy, and current President Gustavo Petro, a former member of an armed rebel group, has pushed for talks with armed groups since his election in June 2022.
Earlier this month, Petro announced that the government would reduce its emphasis on the forced eradication of the coca plant, a mainstay of its anti-drug policy for years.